Nashville’s city center has too much surface parking, too few residents and almost no place to shop for the necessities of daily life. So what’s not to like about the “Viridian,” a $55 million, 225-unit condo tower, with an H.G. Hill’s urban grocery, that developer Tony Giarratana plans to build on Church Street?
The architecture, for starters. The site for the proposed building is sandwiched between the three-story Cohen building and the Life & Casualty Tower, Nashville’s first and best skyscraper still. Having an architectural landmark as a next door neighbor is an exacting context for any designer. But the preliminary renderings of the new tower, by the Atlanta firm of Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates (SRSSA), fail to rise to the challenge.
The Viridian merely risesto a height of 31 stories, the same number of floors as L&C. The style is suburban glitz: a busy agglomeration of balconies and blue/green glasshence the name “Viridian.” The facade “seems to have no connection to Nashville’s downtown,” says one local architect. “It belongs on a beach in Fort Lauderdale.”
The fussy and decidedly earthbound design stands in stark contrast to the lean, aspirational thrust of L&C. And because L&C is set back on its sloping site, the Viridianplaced up to the sidewalkwill block the sightline from the west to all but the “L&C” on the top. This is trading good architecture for bad with a vengeance.
The Viridian’s location within a Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) redevelopment district makes it eligible for tax increment financing (TIF) subsidies as well as subject to the agency’s design review process. MDHA has pledged $6 million in TIF to the project. For its money, MDHA requires that 20 percent of the units be affordable housing, or available to households earning less than 80 percent of the area’s mean incomein Nashville that’s $49,400 for a couple. Another MDHA mandate is that 75 of the unitswhich range from studios to penthouses at prices from $125,000 to over a millionbe pre-sold by June 30. “That’s no problem,” Giarratana says. “We plan to pre-sell 150 units before we commence construction,” which he estimates will begin in mid-October.
Design review started with an informal meeting in November among various city representativesfrom the Metro Planning Department, the Metro Historical Commission and MDHA, as well as Mark Schimmenti of the Nashville Civic Design Center and Curt Garrigan of Metro Parks. Giarratana says his architects are responding to suggestions that there be some space between the Viridian and L&C rather than have the two stand flush against each other. And the working design will defer to the Planning Department’s request that the curb cut on Church Street accessing the building’s parking garage be limited to ingress only so as to disrupt pedestrians as little as possible. “The committee also asked that the balconies and backlit tinted green element that protruded over Church Street be eliminated,” Giarratana says, “and we’re working on that.”
MDHA executive director Phil Ryan says that design review will be ongoing and that the next deadline for schematic drawings is in mid-April. “Foremost in our minds is to make sure we get the design we want,” he says.
The design MDHA should want is one that, in height and massing and styling, complements rather than competes with the L&C Tower. And it will take more than getting rid of the “backlit tinted green element” to achieve it.
Whether Giarratana and his team are up to the task is an open question. The developer has a less than stellar track record on Church Street, where he has been buying and selling property for more than a decade. Giarratana’s Cumberland Apartments, designed by Atlanta’s Cooper Carry and Associates, is a mean structure of pseudo-stucco, too-small windowsexcept for the penthousesand cheesy interior finishes. Adding insult to injury, the Cumberland replaced one of Nashville’s few examples of the full-blown Art Deco stylethe 1932 Sudekum buildingwhich the developer demolished in 1988. “It wasn’t suitable for rehab as offices,” he explains, “and the zoning then prohibited residential in the central core.” Giarratana planned to construct a new high-rise office building on the site until the bottom fell out of the market.
Metro’s zoning laws were changed in the mid-1990s to allow downtown residential units, and MDHA gave Giarratana $6 million to transform his high-rise plan into the apartments. But the 289 units in the 23-story Cumberland, which opened in 1998, were slow to lease. “We projected that it would take one year, but it took two,” Giarratana says. “It took a while to introduce the residential market to the concept of downtown living, but we now have an average occupancy rate of 90 percent.”
Giarratana’s architects have several tall residential towers to their credit, according to the firm’s Web site. The Concorde and the Mayfair are located in Atlanta’s Buckhead and Midtown districts respectively, where they seem to function as stand-alones in their contexts. The Concorde’s site is seven acres, which presents design demands very different from those of a tight site in an urban core.
The developer compares the Viridian to another SRSSA design, the Metropolis. The Atlanta-based Novare Group, Giarratana’s partner in the Viridian, developed this twin tower, 20-story complex. Both advertise similar lifestyle amenities: high-tech wiring, 10-foot ceilings, fitness center and high-rise pool deck, private garage and high security.
It’s difficult to tell what the Metropolis exterior looks like, since all but one of the Web imagesand that an oblique shot from a distanceare of interiors or views looking out. Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic Catherine Fox compliments the way the tower relates to the street. More ominously, Fox characterizes the Metropolis as “a building that shouts, 'Look at me’ and flaunts a hip, now attitude.” That attitude may be fine for Atlanta’s Midtown, where there’s a lot of high-rise flaunting going on.
But L&C doesn’t deserve a competitor in a swagger contest; it deserves acolytes. When it opened in 1957, L&C was the tallest skyscraper in the Southeast and asserted that Nashville was once again the Wall Street of the South. It’s romantic evocation of American modernism remains the most expressive architectural gesture on our skyline. Designed by Nashville’s Edwin Keeble, L&C’s smooth limestone walls and aluminum fins race into the sky, possessing all the streamlining that our later skyscrapers lack. Despite its height, L&C rests urbanely on its corner, its entrance level, defined in black marble, retaining a comforting sense of the human scale.
Keeble inserted his skyscraper into a much lower city. L&C as constructed was flanked by the low-rise Crescent Theateron the plot proposed for the Viridianand the 1925, nine-story Thrift building, which still stands on Fourth Avenue. These background buildings served as stepping stones to the architectural climax of Keeble’s masterpiece.
L&C has not dominated the skyline for many years. But it deserves to retain its status as queen of the corner of Fourth Avenue and Church Street. Mayor Purcell’s goals of more affordable housing and more residents in downtown are admirable. But sometimes the ends don’t justify the means. There are few buildings in Nashville that merit designing the rest of the city around them. The Life & Casualty tower is one of them.
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